In May 2011, the government of Honduras hosted an economic conference in the city of San Pedro Sula to promote foreign and domestic investment. Titled “Honduras is Open for Business,” the event drew the likes of Colombia's ex-president Álvaro Uribe and the world’s richest human, Carlos Slim.
During one portion of the spectacle, Honduran Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati, a former Honduran ambassador to the United States and president of the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise, fielded questions from members of the press. Among them was Canadian filmmaker and videojournalist Jesse Freeston, whose footage of the exchange appears in his just-released film Resistencia: The Fight for the Aguán Valley.
All smiles for the first millisecond or so, Canahuati’s expression quickly sours when Freeston brings up the word on the street: that Honduras is not open for business but rather up for sale. Canahuati replies vehemently that the country is not for sale but that “we can rent out our Honduras for a short period, for the benefit of our people.”
If by “our people” Canahuati meant the Honduran oligarchy, then that’s a perfectly valid statement. But Canahuati is hardly qualified to speak on behalf of the rest of the country. Back in 2004, the US International Trade Commission issued a report on the potential effects of the free trade agreement that was then being negotiated between the United States, Central America, and the Dominican Republic; in it, then-ambassador Canahuati is said to have encouragingly “note[d] that the US textile and apparel industry will be one of the main beneficiaries” of the agreement.
The average citizen of Honduras, of course, has more pressing concerns than the health of imperial businesses. Although Honduran territory is repeatedly “rented out” to exploitative entities like mining corporations and the US military, many Hondurans find it hard simply to survive. Sterling examples showcased in Freeston’s film include the peasant farmers in the Aguán Valley in the northeastern part of the country. Much of the area has been appropriated into the personal lebensraum of Honduran tycoon Miguel Facussé, who prior to perishing last month at the age of ninety was the country’s largest landowner. Facussé’s appetite for profit through the cultivation of lucrative palm plantations throughout the valley inevitably spelt hunger and hardship for farmers wishing to plant a crop or two of their own.
As Freeston documents in Resistencia, the World Bank and other helpful institutions facilitated the land grabs via hefty loans lavished upon Honduras’ Dinant Corporation, founded and owned by Facussé. Prior to a series of neoliberal reforms passed by the government in 1992, Freeston explains, the Aguán had been populated for several decades by campesinos who had arrived from other parts of the country and organized themselves into cooperatives. With the reforms, three-fourths of the coops lost or sold their land; only fourteen remain, having thus far withstood the neoliberal assault, if not periodic attacks on their members.
In one of the film’s encounters, German Castro—who assumed the role of president of the Prieta cooperative when the previous president was found murdered on the highway—describes the conquest of the early nineties: “[T]he… government launched a campaign on radio and television telling campesinos that we were free to sell our land and with the [money] they offered we could spend the rest of our lives in a hammock, living off the interest. It was a farce. Many sold, and then what happened? Two weeks later, they devalued the money.” Castro himself was subsequently the subject of an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed and his wife dead.
But even greater violence has been directed against the members of the Unified Peasant Movement of the Aguán (MUCA) and other peasant groups attempting to reacquire land fraudulently taken from them. Human Rights Watch reports that, according to the National Human Rights Commissioner of Honduras, ninety-two people—most of them members of peasant organizations—were killed in land disputes in the Aguán between 2009 and 2012 alone.
The year 2009 was a milestone in Honduras’ trajectory of injustice, briefly putting the country back on the map. Then-President Manuel Zelaya, who had incidentally just recently pledged to assist the Aguán farmers in recuperating their land rights, was overthrown in a coup that installed a more business-friendly regime. Since then, business has been the order of the day.
Zelaya had stepped on the toes of elites in other ways, as well, such as by raising the rural minimum wage to $213 per month and attempting to consult the nation’s citizenry about a possible redrafting of the extraordinarily biased national constitution. The Honduran oligarchy apparently detected a slippery slope towards Communism in these modest proposals—which would have constituted their own idea of a circle in hell—and Zelaya was carted off to Costa Rica in his pajamas by the country’s military. That same day, Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas was removed from her post and flown from the country in an airplane belonging to none other than Miguel Facussé, eventually winding up in Mexico.
Less than six months after the coup, once the new regime in Honduras had covered its criminal tracks with help from the United States and illegitimate elections, MUCA—seeing that things had returned to business as usual—occupied a handful of Facussé’s plantations and began erecting a community: houses, water tower, chicken coop. Inspired by their effectiveness, other groups followed the example.
In Resistencia, Freeston’s extensive footage from post-coup Aguán transmits the collective excitement that comes with reclaiming the right to a dignified existence. “With so much activity in the new communities,” Freeston tells us, he would “sometimes forget about the constant threat of violence they live under…But never for very long.” The regular appearance of corpses of MUCA members made sure of that.
Some people, however, had different ideas about the real victims of the arrangement. At one moment in the documentary we see the tycoon Facussé playing financial analyst, arguing that “a situation like the one in the Aguán where they are stealing… private property from the investment sector makes the foreign investors uneasy.”
Hit men and private security guards aside, the Honduran military and police have also contributed to peasant uneasiness in the Aguán. In 2011, for example, police burned the community of Rigores to the ground, leaving roughly five hundred people homeless. A female community member interviewed by Freeston remarks on the unsettling notion that “the police aren’t here to defend you but instead to destroy you.” Fighting back tears, she reports having planted a corn crop just one day prior to the destruction.
Of course, no discussion of brutal ironies in Honduras is complete without some additional gaping at Washington’s role in the proceedings. As Freeston notes in Resistencia, “Since the coup, the US government has increased military aid to Honduras to its highest levels in history, with the stated purpose of fighting drug trafficking. But [in 2011] WikiLeaks published a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras revealing that the State Department has known since 2004 that planes carrying cocaine from Colombia land on airstrips in the middle of Miguel Facussé’s plantations.”
As historian Dana Frank wrote at the time in an article for The Nation, this meant that “US ‘drug war’ funds and training, in other words, are being used to support a known drug trafficker’s war against campesinos.” And while Facussé may have departed this earth, the war isn’t going anywhere. There are too many humans in the way.
Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.